Warrington is a proud Northern town half way between Manchester and Liverpool that, like so many of its kind, had its heart ripped out first by the Thatcher government and more recently by the cultural shift towards big cities that has seen so much of the underground scene in these towns decimated by economics, leaving, as Kris put it in one interview "nothing to do other than drink cider and smoke rollies on a park and chase after girls." Viola Beach didn't just do that though. By the time of their death, they'd sold out future gigs at the smaller Pyramid and the room we're stood in tonight, having rebuilt a music scene around their spiritual home of The Lounge, just around the corner from the hall and the focal point of local tributes when the news broke.
This event was organised as the town's way of paying tribute to the five. Bands that were due to support them at the Warrington shows (The Strawberries and Psyblings who we missed due to a confusion over door times), Blossoms and The Vryll Society who were on tour with them in February, Eliza And The Bear who they played with last year, The Kooks who Kris quoted as the reason he wanted to be in a band, and Courteeners and The Coral, who were also some of the band's quoted favourites, all joined together to celebrate as well as remember on a night full of emotion, but one that tried to turn that feeling of loss into one of celebration of the legacy that they left even though they were taken way too soon before achieving what they undoubtedly would have done.
The first band we caught were The Vryll Society. They've recovered from the illness that forced them to cancel shows last weekend and are on fine form, their hazy, dreamy soundscape, full of widescreen ambition and creating a wave on which to carry us away, feels more at home in these bigger venues these days than it does in tiny clubs. Beautiful Faces and Deep Blue Skies, where Mike leaves the conclusion of the set to his band mates, are big pieces of music that make you fall for their all-embracing charms.
Craig also managed Hidden Charms and the two bands had toured together so for them tonight was possibly the most difficult. There are so many parallels to be drawn between the two bands - the first being the contagious energy that they exude, another the way in which the songs feel like they're being formed in front of you such is the fluidity of the rhythms that they create. They play both their brilliant singles Dreaming Of Another Girl and Love You Cause You're There as well as a couple of great sounding new songs and a long majestically drawn out Into The Zone. But the most poignant moment of all is when they cover Viola Beach's Get To Dancing - it's absolutely right that they are the only band to cover them and it'd be a fitting tribute to the five if Hidden Charms were to be absolutely massive.
They stay on stage and invite on Dave, Abi and Boyan from The Zutons, who haven't played a gig since 2009, to perform Zuton Fever and You Will You Won't from their debut album. The young crowd might not remember them, but they're soon caught up in the delicious grooves that you can trace a line from to some of the other bands on the bill.
Next up are Eliza And The Bear. We'd never heard them before tonight, but we're mightily impressed. They go for the jugular with huge anthemic sounds from their forthcoming self-titled album and they do it with a passion that's infectious and that you can't help be drawn in by. The highlight of their set is a track called Friends with the repeated line "I got friends, I got family here" which feels very fitting for the evening.
Blossoms play their set stripped back and show a very different side to their sound, but one which confirms what we've been telling people for what seems like forever now. The likes of Cut Me And I'll Bleed, At Most A Kiss, Charlemagne and Blow may have a sheen applied to the recorded versions and kick a huge punch live, but with the layers peeled back, they reveal a songwriting core to the band and a musicianship that shows exactly why they've had the success they've had.
It's at this point that tears start to be shed. First of all, members of the families are invited up on to the stage and start a singalong of the song that Viola Beach would come on to stage with. It's the rather wacky Day Man from the Always Sunny In Philadelphia series, its chorus of "Champion of the Sun, Master Of Karate, And Friendship. For everyone" encapsulating the joy of life that Viola Beach exuded every time they went up on stage.
The families stay up there as the live set from Leamington Spa that was played on the Blossoms date immediately after the accident is replayed, but this time with a video accompaniment on the big screen at the back. It's cut from a number of different live sets and also contains the band filmed off-stage, larking around, behaving like any normal young men living out their dream as well as photographs of them both as a band and individually. People cry, people hug, people cheer (it's the first time I've ever cheered someone in the blue of Craig's beloved Manchester City) and we all dance and sing along as we're reminded just how much potential the band had in just that short half hour of songs. It's an absolutely perfect way to commemorate them - whether you knew the band like so many in the room clearly did, had seen them play live and chatted briefly to them at gigs like we had or had just been drawn in by those few songs they'd released. I hope it helps those most closely affected by the loss of their brothers, sons, best mates to come to terms in some way.
The Kooks have the unenviable task of following this, but it's one that they tackle by focusing on what they do best and letting their music do the talking whilst Luke acknowledges the impact Viola Beach have left behind them. By the time they finish off with She Moves In Her Own Way and Naive, the hall has responded by going crazy to one of the bands that most influenced the nascent Viola Beach.
Next up is Liam Fray and he starts by playing a solo version of Sunflower, but then the worst kept secret of the evening is revealed as the rest of Courteeners make their way on to the stage. They blast through Are You In Love With A Notion, an incendiary version of Not Nineteen Forever before finishing with Here Come The Young Men, which Liam very poignantly dedicates to Viola Beach and Craig as a song that they'll never play again without thinking of them.
The crowd has thinned out a bit because of last buses and trains, but the evening is finished off perfectly by The Coral, who keep it short and sweet with four songs Jacqueline, Pass It On, In The Morning and Dreaming Of You. Those four songs though show a lineage to the songs Viola Beach were producing, an innate understanding of melody and not over-complicating things with a modesty that says far more than a scripted pose.
As they leave the stage, the PA blasts out Swings & Waterslides for one last time, followed by Day Man and those remaining have one last dance in honour of the band and Craig before making their way out into the cold Warrington night.
This was a perfect way to commemorate the lives of five young men who died pursuing their dream. It was about celebration rather than mourning, even those closest to the band joining together to watch them do what they loved doing the most. There's beach balls being thrown around the hall all night, the multi-coloured umbrellas from the Swings & Waterslides single cover are opened on the balcony.
The artists involved, some of which had lasting friendships with them, and the compere Phil Taggart handled the evening with just the right mix of celebration and commemoration as they have done throughout. Hidden Charms, in particular, as well as Blossoms and The Vryll Society have shown so much dignity, empathy and respect as their hearts have been breaking at the loss of their friends, whilst those behind the scenes, Conrad and the team at SJM as well as the venue that put on the event got everything just spot on.
Whilst time won't heal the hurt and loss of what happened, I hope that the evening's event and the huge amount of love that filled the room helped in some way to soothe the wounds that the band and Craig's friends and families will still be tending. Whilst there's talk of a permanent memorial in the town, the most fitting legacy of all to Kris, River, Jack, Tomas and Craig would be a plethora of exciting young bands to come out of Warrington and a scene reinvigorated to celebrate and to follow the trail that Viola Beach blazed.
Merchandise from the event, with all proceeds going to the families, can be purchased on-line here. Donations to the Viola Beach memorial fund can be made here.
The Vryll Society are on Facebook and Twitter.
Hidden Charms' website can be found here. They are also on Soundcloud, Facebook and Twitter.
Eliza And The Bear's official site can be found here. They are also on Facebook and Twitter.
Blossoms' official website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.
The Kooks' official website can be found here. They are also on Facebook and Twitter.
The Courteeners website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter. Front man Liam Fray is also on Twitter.
The Coral's official website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.
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